On April 22, 1990, I put on a concert at Victoria’s University Center Auditorium with the help of my friends, Jim Vining and Trevor Harton, to celebrate the 20thanniversary of Earth Day and the release of ‘Mother Earth’, which had just been named Canada’s Earth Day song. We pulled out all the stops. We had a full band, including Bill Sample, Brian Newcombe, Dane Deviller, Vince Mai, Paul Baron, Tom Colclough, and Tom Keenlyside, with Duncan Meiklejohn, Joani Bye, and Linda Kidder on vocals. We had two huge video screens, a one-hundred voice children’s choir, and special guests Shari Ulrich, Valdy, and the Victoria Symphony Orchestra.
The show opened with a beautiful video montage celebrating Mother Earth, a spoken excerpt from Chief Seattle’s famous speech about the web of life, and a blessing by a couple of my First Nations friends. We ended the show with ‘One People’, my peace anthem. It was a joyous evening, with a couple of encores, the audience on its feet, clapping and singing along.
After the show, a woman approached the stage and began speaking to me. The first words out of her mouth were “Would you like to go to Russia?”. Anyone who’s performed in public probably knows that every now and then you get approached by some ‘interesting characters’, usually harmless, and sometimes with mixed agendas. She must have sensed the slight look of skepticism on my face, because she went on to say “No, I’m serious. My name is Joy Marampan, and I’m with the Canadian Youth Ambassadors, a 60-member group of young singers and performers, representing Canada. We have an up-coming three-week tour of Russia and Finland, and we’d like you to be one of our adult performers, and your song ‘One People’ to be our theme song. We can’t pay you a fee, but all your expenses will be covered. You won’t have to spend a cent.” I thought about it. It didn’t take long. It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I said ‘yes’.
We flew to Helsinki and on to Lapland in northern Finland. After several small concerts, we flew to Moscow and eventually by train to Leningrad, as it was called then. We did several shows over the next couple of weeks, mostly in theatres, and once in a Moscow museum, occasionally performing with some wonderful young Russian kids, while teaching them ‘One People’.
One aspect of the trip that made it especially memorable and poignant, was being billeted with Russian host families. We lived and ate together, and had many animated conversations about politics and our respective governments, as the Russian people then felt more free to speak openly. I got a real sense of everyday life in at least one level of Russian society.
The Kitanovs—Arsen, Svetlana, and their son Omar, were my host family in Moscow. Omar, 13 years old at the time, played piano. Arsen, his dad, played bass, and after dinner we would jam together. I still stay in touch with Omar, now in his 40’s, living in Sacramento, California. We like to tease each other with put-on Russian accents, pretend to be KGB, and call each other ‘comrade’.
The Romanovs, my Leningrad host family, not only provided food and lodging, but were tremendous hosts, taking the time to show me much of Leningrad, its incredible architecture and beauty. The last I heard, they too had moved to central California.
All in all, the trip was like a university education crammed into 3 weeks, a real cultural eye-opener. The Russian people I met were some of the most generous, hospitable, warm, and friendly people I’ve ever met... anywhere. Tears were shed on both sides when we finally had to say goodbye.
So much like the rest of us, they simply wanted to live their lives, be happy, put food on the table, and keep their kids safe. There was no hint whatsoever of any Cold War remnants, only mutual respect and curiosity. The tension between today’s Russia and the West is between governments, not the people, and in no way does it reflect the heart and soul of the Russian people I met. I’m sure glad I said ‘yes’.